Writer’s Conundrum: Experience vs. Imagination

The age-old maxims states:  “write what you know,” and, indeed, many of us do write from experience.  This is true even within the genre of speculative fiction.  In fact, it may be especially true in speculative fiction.  The more fantastical our worlds and characters, the more important it becomes to ground them in something that feels, if not real, at least possible.  We might be writing about lovelorn giant squid or misunderstood zombies, but we often base them and their worlds around people we know or places we’ve been.

So, it stands to reason that  in order to keep our imaginations fresh, engage our readers, and seek new fodder for characters and world-building, we must continue to have new experiences.

A small example that set me thinking about this:  a few weeks ago I participated in my first-ever poker game (I know, I know…I need to get out more).  During a hand where I’d folded and was waiting out the action, I started pondering how I might write a story about a game of poker without it actually being about people sitting around playing poker.  The next day I wrote a draft of a tale that follows a high stakes poker game unfolding across the entire landscape of a post-apocalyptic, magic-shrouded Manhattan.  The experience of playing poker for the first time inspired me to write something new.

But here’s the rub:  while some new adventures are free and can be worked around or into our busy schedules, most of them aren’t (even the game of poker cost me a buy-in).

Another example:  I’m currently working on a novel set in the high plateaus of central Mexico.  Though I’ve spent a lot of time in other parts of Central America, I’ve never been to Mexico.  Sure, I’ve done research, found images and descriptions, listened to recorded sounds of native animals, and talked to my archaeologist friends who’ve done work in the region.  But that isn’t the same as experiencing the landscape firsthand.  I don’t know how those deserts smell, or what they look like at different times of day, or how sounds carry across the dry, open spaces.

Of course, this is where imagination in comes in.  And imagination can take you a long way, but still…those experiences are what help bring our writing to life.

So how do we prioritize?  Is it better to spend our time and money on sword-fighting lessons and books about military strategy to improve those battle scenes, or would a trip to the region where the novel is set pay bigger dividends?  Do you need to pay the money to shoot guns at a firing range in order to write a realistic gun fight?  Can another person’s words help you write a description of the Himalayas that exhilarates the reader even if you’ve never experienced that exhilaration yourself?

What’s the balance between creativity, imagination, and experience?  How important are new sights, sounds, tastes, and smells to nourishing our writing?  Or do you think it’s all bunk and a writer can get everything they need from research, interviews, and the rich soil of their own mind?

What do you think?  And what are your tricks for accruing experiences without emptying your bank account and getting fired from your job?

7 thoughts on “Writer’s Conundrum: Experience vs. Imagination

  1. Sean Craven

    I think life experience is crucial. It’s kind of a truism that painters and novelists don’t start doing their best work until their forties. Part of this has to do with accumulation of skill, part with life experience.

    I’m not a David Morrell reader, but in his book on writing, he said that every time he takes a vacation, he does something that he’ll be able to write about. Sounds shrewd.

    I think it’s a good idea for a writer to put themselves into unfamiliar circumstances on a regular basis.

    It may be more important to consider that art is an adjunct of life rather than the other way round…

  2. Julia Rios

    A lovelorn giant squid, huh? Sounds familiar….

    I think there’s a blend of research and experience that colors the best stories. It’s okay not to have been to Mexico as long as what happens in Mexico in your story resonates. I think it’s when writers write about unfamiliar experiences, emotions and settings all at once that the major problems come in.

  3. Matt Hughes

    I want to say Stephen King talks about this in ‘On Writing’ but I can’t recall if I’m right on that or not. No matter who said it, it boils down to this – life experience is very important but it is not 100% necessary to write the scene.

    Example : If you’ve been in a bar in New York, how far of a leap is it to transfer that place to Mexico? Change some of the decorations and the drinks, maybe the music on the juke box and let the reader fill in extra details with the right prompts (‘aroma wafting from the kitchen’, ‘floor sticky from spilt beer’, etc).

    Of course, if you have never had the life experience of being in a bar, well, then things are going to be a little tougher.

    As for tricks : Google images is my favorite. I also do lots of Google searches for ‘Vacation to [Insert Location]’ People love to share their stories and they a lot of times fill in those details and provide the prompts to jog the reader’s imagination.

  4. kimsmith

    Iappologize, because I am going to hijack this topic with a bit of a rant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thrown out of a reading experience because the author didn’t know what they were talking about.

    In particular, one of my pet peeves is the treatment of horses and horse powered vehicles.

    For example:

    1. Wanda Brunstetter writes contemporaary stories about the Plain Folk in Lancaster County. In one of her early books, there is a wagon accident. I’m not going to debate the plausibility of a wagon going at such reckless speed as to slide off an icy road twenty feet wide. No, the point that got me was when (I kid you not) the wheels “spun for traction”.

    2. In Evan’s Horse Whisperer, the horse rears and screams in terror when at the edge of a sharp incline.

    Okay, maybe this “experienced” rider who has been over this trail a hundred times forgot that there was a Death Drop nearby. But horses do not rear in terror as they are sliding off an incline–if they’re sliding, they don’t have purchase to rear up. They brace their legs, suck it up, and scramble for purchase.

    They also do not scream in terror (I shake my fist and cry, “Damn you, stupid Hollywood!”). Generally, when horses whinny or nicker, it’s because they see someone–their rider, another horse–and are calling out to say, “Hi! How are ya!” It’s friendly. It’s happy.

    What they do when a Deadly Ninja Leaf skitters into the road ahead is a) freeze (making the rider feel as though they have jumped two feet to the left), prick ears forward, straining to determine the ninja leaf’s intent, and b) having determined their lives are in imminent peril, is ease themselves firmly in another direction, absolutely refusing to get within thirty feet of Autumnal Death.

    3. In The Reliable Wife, the two main characters take a wagon into a Wisconsin blizzard. It’s bitter cold. Really, that’s the opening of the book, “It was bitter cold.” Four o’clock on a bitter cold day with snow. “Hurling snow” no less. It’s a blizzard; the author says so. Snow so thick, the main character vanishes into it for a moment, reappearing to climb into the wagon seat beside his companion.

    (Of course, despite swirling snow, they can still see the lights of buildings, the iron grey river, and other articles of the landscape.)

    Granted, the man is filthy rich, and may not care if his horses lather up and drop dead, or if the metal on their gear freezes to their mouths or skin. Although, throughout the rest of the book, the man is actually very sensitive, so this opening is kind of contradictory to me, which makes it all the more irritating.

    Still, he’s willing to risk his animals as well as his own life simply because he doesn’t want to shack up in a motel room, so he’s going to drive the team out to his country home. Even though the woman with him is not dressed for freezing temperatures. Temperatures so cold, there is ice crackling in the horses’ manes.

    Here is where the author could have benefitted from simply driving with his car window down in cold weather. For thirty minutes. In negative wind chills.

    But let’s suspend disbelief on this recklessness for a moment. Maybe these people aren’t just stupid; maybe the man is just a little stir crazy from the Wisconsin isolation. Let’s get to the part where the horses are startled by a deer. They whinny first, of course (again, “Damn you, Hollywood!”), and rear in their traces, and then they bolt.

    Bolt away from the road, haring headlong across the countryside regardless of fences or other landscape obstacles that would have been the equivalent of running up against a wall, could have tangled their legs (barbed wire was common fencing material), or could have broken the wagon apart. The horses are running in the Wisconsin snow. You ever tried to run against snow drifts?

    You don’t do it for very long.

    Oh, and one of the team shattered a leg. Horses will run with a shattered leg, but when they come to a stop, they stop. Taking the team the rest of the way in the miles long trip would have been a halting, jerky process. The woman who had, due to circumstances, taken over driving the team, might well have been driven to tears or pleading for her life, coaxing just a little more from the crippled animal, or she could have revealed an iron cold core to her personality, indifferent to the animal’s suffering, spending it ruthlessly for her own survival. Maybe even wavering between the two extremes as she progressed. The author chose not to exploit that opportunity, though, which seems an obvious one to me.

    Part of my point is this: writers often describe the jingle of tack, or the rhythm of hooves, but they often leave out other, more obvious details, such as the smell. There’s a good horse smell, even to a lathered, sweaty beast. Or if you sit bareback on one, hair will prickle even through blue jeans, and when you get off, your backside (including the backs of your legs) will be damp, hairy, and coated with dust. These things are obvious to someone who has experienced horses in something other than a visual medium.

    I’m also not saying if someone wants to include horses in their story, they have to hijack the plot to focus on human-animal relationship. Just that they’re not car parts. They don’t behave like Hollywood depicts them any more than Lassie did. And there’s a wealth of unexploited opportunity to reflect the main character through their ineraction with them.

    And I’m not advocating that a writer go live in a stable just to give a minor plot device in their story some depth.

    However,I don’t think it would be too much to ask, especially in this age of increased connectivity through the internet, that one get a beta reader who has some authentic experience with the things the author has little or none. That seems to be the most reasonable, financially feasible thing to do for just about anything one can’t experience directly, but wants to include in a story.

    And it would keep someone who has never lived in New Mexico writing the equivalent of a Wanda Brunstetter Spinning-for-Traction Wagon Wheel.

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Kim,

      You didn’t hijack the tread 😉 and I’m glad you chimed in. I think you’re 100% right – it is incumbent on the author to get the details right. I think things like what you describe happen when authors *assume* they know what they’re talking about, or get lazy, or simply don’t reflect critically enough on their writing.

  5. Steve Buchheit

    Always go to the place, if you can. A few years ago I had a chance to go to Gettysburg. I could never understand the order of battle of the first day, until I saw the land. Then it all made sense.

    Also, I went to The Angle (where Pickett’s/Pettigrew’s Charge breached the Northern Defenses). I looked out from the Northern Position and thought, “Hmm, okay, good defensive position, but not that hard to assail from the other side.” Then I walked over the wall to the view from the Southern’s Position as they assaulted the wall. “O. M. G., they charged up THERE?” Completely different view. While I detest their reasons, I gained a respect for the Army of Virginia. Also stood where the S. Carolina (under Scales and Marshall, IIRC) division was obliterated when the North opened up with cannon along the ridge line (as opposed to the hazing fire from Little Round Top). “Sweet Mother of God, they charged That?!”

    If I had never been there standing on that ground, I wouldn’t have the full understanding of that battle. (Also standing above the Butchers Groove or in the middle of the Wheat Field).

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